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Five things you need to know about Alberta's latest Electoral Boundaries Commission

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John Ashton

You've got the postcard in the mail and maybe heard your political activist pals muttering about this redraw of the electoral boundary maps. You don't know what it is and you're not sure if you want to.

We're here to help. Here are five things you need to know about the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission.

What do they do?

Alberta is divided into 87 electoral districts, and each district elects an MLA. After every two elections, a commission is struck to spend about a year dividing our province into 87 pieces roughly equal in population.

The Electoral Boundaries Commission will hold hearings and produce an interim report on May 31. Then they'll hold another set of hearings and produce a final report on Oct. 31. That report will then be voted on in the Legislature.

"Roughly" is necessarily a vague qualifying adjective, in this case. There are supposed to be 49,000 Albertans per riding, but the commission can allow a riding's population to be 25 per cent above or below that average in any riding. This is known as a "variance." Plus, they may allow up to four ridings to even break that rule (although there's never been more than two that do). More on variances later.

What don't they do?

The commission's mandate is limited to the map, and only the map. They can't introduce proportional representation or otherwise change the electoral system. They can't reduce or increase the number of MLAs. They can't keep candidate signs off every corner. They can't introduce Internet voting.

Who's on it?

Alberta is one of the few jurisdictions in Canada where elected officials ostensibly control this process. While the MLAs don't draw the map themselves (as is the case in the United States), the premier is allowed to nominate three of the commission's five members, including the commission's chair. The leader of the Opposition nominates the other two members.

As one might expect, Progressive Conservative MLAs arguably got very friendly maps for decades, especially in Edmonton and downtown Calgary, while MLAs from Opposition parties were generally terrified of having their riding boundaries scrambled or merged with conservative-voting neighbourhoods.

Why hasn't the Notley government changed this system? Her reactionary attackers might claim that she wants the same advantage that the PCs enjoyed for so long. But finding multi-party support with two intransigent opposition parties to make these changes, while trying to remove big donations and spending from politics, may have been a bridge too far.

So who got appointed this time? Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Myra Bielby is the chair. Acme Mayor Bruce McLeod and Human Rights lawyer Jean Munn are the other two Rachel Notley appointees. Wildrose Leader Brian Jean nominated litigation lawyer Laurie Livingstone and Mountain View County Councillor Gwen Day.

Hicks v. city slickers

For decades, the Electoral Boundaries Commission has been peppered with the same competing sides of the same argument: rural voters are losing population and are therefore in danger of having giant ridings separated by enormous distances (which is true) versus urban voters who argue they have way more voters than there should be in their ridings and that their representation is therefore diluted (which is simultaneously true).

For example, Calgary-South East at last count had 20,000 more people than it should. Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley has 23,000 too few.

In 2010, former PC premier Ed Stelmach dodged this fight before it began by increasing the number of ridings from 83 to 87. This allowed the previous commission to give seats to Calgary, Edmonton, and Wood Buffalo without dissolving rural seats. Even then, the commission said that this had only deferred this conflict.

Stelmach said later in a CBC interview that "if we had not increased the number of seats, we would have lost three just in the horseshoe from Lloydminster coming around to Rocky Mountain House, three rural ridings."

The current commission has two rural politicians and two Calgary lawyers sitting on it. Odds are good that this fight will play out both in front of and behind closed doors.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

There is one new issue about to land on the commission's collective lap. It involves the raw population statistics that both the commission and those who would make presentations to it use to build the maps.

Legislation requires that the commission must use the most recent municipal or federal population counts available. And, as luck would have it, Statistics Canada is ready to unveil all the data from last year's census on Feb. 8.

Here's the problem: All the hearings are in January. The deadline for written submissions is also Feb. 8. For added confusion, Calgary and a handful of small towns will be allowed presentations, but no written submissions. This means the commission gets to use the latest numbers for their interim report, and almost every Albertan presenting to the commission does not.

Any researcher from any academic discipline will tell you that this is a huge problem. A presenter can't have a chance at having their proposed maps taken into serious consideration for the first round if her or she is using old data, especially as Alberta tends to grow faster than other provinces.

While those statistics will be available for the second round, that second round is a time for edits, not new ideas. At best, Albertans can hope to influence the commission into making tweaks, but no real chance at making a major change.

John Ashton is a former NDP Caucus director. More information about the commission can be found at abebc.ca. This guest post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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